Designing and manufacturing modern jet aircraft is a monumental challenge, but the naming of those aircraft is no small feat either. Marketing plays a hugely important role, but there is also order to the madness of aircraft naming. How Boeing names their aircraft has changed through the years and differs from Airbus. In this post, we’ll walk through how Boeing named its aircraft beginning with dawn of the jet age and work through the naming conventions used for current and future aircraft.
From removing customer codes to marketing names and shifts as the plane maker enters its next era, this is how Boeing names its commercial aircraft.
How Boeing names its aircraft
Boeing’s aircraft naming convention dates back to the 1950s and its first jet-powered commercial aircraft, the 707. From then on, Boeing’s jet-powered aircraft follow a naming pattern of 7X7, with few exceptions. This leads to the 727, 737, 747 and so on, right up to the 787.
Boeing’s first three digits can be thought of as a model number, but there is a wealth of information about the aircraft than can be learned from the full aircraft name. As with Airbus and many other manufacturers, Boeing’s aircraft names don’t just stop at the base three numbers. It extends further than that, as visible when tracking aircraft types through Flightradar24.
From 1956 to 2016, Boeing utilized customer codes for naming their aircraft, unlike Airbus, which uses engine types to dictate additional naming beyond the model number. Customer codes were unique to each customer that operated the type. As an example, Qantas operated the Boeing 747, so this is how the full aircraft name would appear:
Starting with 7 is to reference that this is a jet-powered aircraft at Boeing.
4 represents the fourth jet-powered aircraft released in the 7X7 naming sequence.
While the last 7 came about as it just sounded better when the naming convention was decided upon for the 707.
The second part of the naming sequence for Qantas would begin with a 4. In this case, the 4 symbolises these superseding other variants of the 747 family, such as the -100, -200 and -300.
Lastly, 38 will conclude the naming. This is because 38 was the designated customer code for Qantas handed down by Boeing.
So, in the end, you’d find yourself with 747-438.
For further clarity, let’s use Southwest and the 737 as examples.
We’d begin with 7, again referencing this being a jet-powered aircraft.
3 symbolises this is the third edition of the Boeing jet-powered family.
7 comes in place as Boeing felt it would be a better fit than another number.
Following a dash, 8 highlights this being a version of the 737.
Lastly, there’s H4. This is because the designated customer code for Southwest from Boeing is H4. In the end, you’d find yourself with a Southwest 737-8H4.
You might also find a 737-7H4, as you can see the customer code sticks regardless of the variant in the series adjusting.
ER, LR, D, M... What are all these letters after aircraft types at Boeing?
Additionally, for some passenger aircraft types at Boeing, letters are added to the end to symbolize the aircraft’s capabilities that differ from the base model.
Some of Boeing’s earlier aircraft programs, such as the 707 and 727, had variants that saw C added. In these cases, they were convertible passenger-freighter aircraft. In most cases, there were new cargo doors added.
On the 747-400, for example, multiple versions were produced that differed in their capabilities. Beginning with the 747-400M or Combi, the M highlighted that this was a passenger/freighter with a large cargo door towards the rear part of the fuselage for freighter purposes.
Boeing also produced the 747-400D, a high-density variant of the -400 pitched for short-haul services requiring more seating capacity. These were similar to the 747SR—a short-range version of the 747-100, both of which were primarily used for domestic flights in Japan.
Boeing also progressed with a 747-400ER. ER is a common theme among several Boeing aircraft types. ER symbolizes Extended Range and gives airlines that fly the variant further options in terms of the routes they can operate.
The 767 series came with several ER variants, such as the 767-200ER, 767-300ER and 767-400ER. These all came with range improvements over their base variant and in the case of the -300ER and -400ER further passenger capacity improvements as well.
Lastly, Boeing’s 777 also came with a 777-200ER and 777-300ER. However, moving away from the extended range, Boeing also introduced a 777-200LR, LR symbolizing Long Range, further extending the capabilities on the 777.
Saying goodbye to customer codes
For 60 years, Boeing utilized customer codes as a fundamental way to name their aircraft destined for customers. There were five sequences of these customer codes, each housing different combinations.
First sequence – 21 to 99
Second sequence – 01 to 19
Third sequence – A0 to Z9
Fourth sequence 0A to 9Z
Fifth sequence – AA to ZZ
A complete list of the respective code combinations and their customer assignements can be viewed here.
In 2016, Boeing sent its customer codes to the boneyard and noted that aircraft would no longer be designated by customer. Boeing had signaled the end of customer codes when it launched the 787 without them, instead sticking with just its three variants, the -8, -9 and -10 with no additional text.
As a result, if part of the “next generation” aircraft, they would be referred to as a 737-800. So, for example, if a 737NG (Next Generation) were headed to Southwest, it would simply be known as a 737-800 rather than previously a 737-8H4, H4 being the customer code for Southwest.
What about marketing names?
Similar to Airbus, Boeing also indulges in marketing names for its aircraft. This means the overarching series name will differ from what is displayed on Flightradar24 tracking information. However, this doesn’t mean the marketing name is an incorrect term.
For example, Boeing’s upcoming wide body is known as the 777X series; however, inside the 777X series comes two passenger variants, the 777-8 and 777-9. These specific variants are how they’re listed inside Flightradar24. The ICAO codes for these two variants are B778 and B779, with an IATA type code of 778 and 779, and they’re part of the 777X series.
This further extends towards Boeing’s 737 MAX and 787 Dreamliner series, with these mainly being the marketing names and the variants including 737-7, 737-8, 737-9, 737-10 and for the Dreamliner, the 787-8, 787-9 and 787-10.
Marketing names are a far easier way to discuss and market the series without getting into specifics of the variants housed within them, and ultimately, the 777X will be another aircraft substantially simplified as it’s part of the next era at Boeing.
Examining the next era of aircraft at Boeing
By removing customer codes and launching new aircraft types, Boeing has adjusted how it names aircraft. Let’s look at some of their newer aircraft types to see how their names differ.
737 MAX – The 737 was first launched in the early 1960s and has progressed through four generations from the original 737 to today’s 737 MAX. For Boeing, their smallest MAX variant is the 737-7. The 737-8 is the most popular model, akin to the 737-800. The 737-8-200 is the high capacity version of the -8, featuring high-density seating for up to 200 passengers. This version of the 737 MAX is operated primarily by Ryanair and its various subsidiaries. The 737-9 and 737-10 round out the MAX series, with the -10 being the longest 737 ever produced.
787 – The Boeing 787 marked the next generation of flight for Boeing. It was also the first series to drop customer codes before Boeing decided to axe them in 2016 altogether. As such, 787 variants were known as the 787-8, 787-9 and 787-10, regardless of the customer.
777X – Similarly to the 737 MAX and 787, Boeing’s upcoming wide body, the 777X, will follow a similar naming sequence. Boeing will produce three variants of the 777X, the 777-8, 777-9, and 777X Freighter.
The curious world of freighters...
While Boeing is predominantly known for their work in the passenger sector of the industry, it also does fly and produce freighters or have their aircraft turned into cargo flying units. As a result, how aircraft names are written changes. In all cases, letters are applied to the end of the initial aircraft name, similar to ER, LR, etc. So, let’s explore the process.
747-400F – When F is placed at the end of the aircraft name, it means this is a pure freighter.
747-400ERF – An ERF is an extended-range freighter. Similar in capability to an extended-range passenger aircraft, however, it is a freighter with room for greater payloads or range.
737-800BCF – BCF stands for Boeing Converted Freighter. This means the aircraft manufacturer or company partner converted former passenger aircraft into dedicated freighters.
767-300BDSF – BDSF is BeDek Special Freighter. While housing a different array of letters, BDSFs are similar to BCFs. However, they are given the designation thanks to the respective company; in this case, IAI’s Aviation Group converts the aircraft.
Combi Aircraft (C and M) – These are Combi aircraft, essentially focusing on passengers and cargo. Boeing produced Combi 707s, 727s, 737s, 747s and a lone 757 for this purpose.
757-200SF – SF stands for Special Freighter with Boeing.
What about the Boeing Dash 80 and 720? And where’d the 717 go?
While Boeing has primarily stuck with its 7X7 naming sequence for jet-powered aircraft, there are a few outliers.
Boeing’s prototype jet, which was eventually developed into the 707, retained the name Model 367-80. More commonly just called the Dash 80, only one was ever built and never operated for an airline. The 367-80 was the test bed for Boeing’s entry into the jet age, the parent plane for the 707 and Boeing’s military refueling and cargo efforts in the KC-135.
The Dash 80 would remain a prototype for over a decade. It contributed to the development of the 727 as a flying test bed and also allowed Boeing to test new technologies in the air until it was retired in in 1969. Today, the Dash 80 is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
Going outside the 7X7 mold, the 720 is a derivative of the 707. The 720, which was a shorter version of the 707 designed for shorter range flights from airports with shorter runways, was initially slated to be the 707-020, then the 717-020, before Boeing settled on the 720. The 717 would finally join the naming sequence after the merger between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas saw the latter’s MD-95 single aisle aircraft renamed.
Is this the future 797?
NASA and Boeing are currently beginning construction on the first prototype truss-braced wing concept aircraft. If trials prove successful, will this be the aircraft to round out the 7X7 line as the 797?